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Picture from Loz Flowers: Colindale in Fog

An old enemy returns. It’s not insomnia, not really; just a couple of hours in the middle of the night when sleep is impossible and the world feels irrevocably broken. Noah calls on an array of comfortable fantasties to lull himself back to sleep; loose narratives based around parkour, sex and absurd ninja fight-outs, for the most part.

They used to work pretty well. Now that the world is collapsing for real, they’re not as effective—which is why he ends up by the window at four a.m., looking out through a crack in the filing-cabinet barricades. There are so many stars, just in one narrow arc of sky.

Some time before morning he falls asleep again. He wakes to a bright dawn diffused by fog, and to the fuzzy-edged silhouettes of enormous moths. Behind him he can hear Johnny’s daily ritual: an hour of flicking light switches, clicking through the stations on the wind-up radio, searching new cupboards for an extra packet of biscuits. The food hunt turns up something new every day or two, but the radio’s been silent since the beginning.

“When I had my first job interview here,” Noah says, “some of my friends made jokes about surviving the apocalypse. But I think they were imagining a pandemic rather than a plague of giant moths.”

“Well, they can’t really be moths,” Johnny says. “Moths at that scale would be impossible. We talked about it before. Squares and cubes, remember? You can’t just make something enormous and expect it to keep working the same way.”

“You get albatrosses,” Noah says.

“Not technically an insect,” Johnny says.

“Big flying things, you know.” He stretches his legs out.

“Well, exactly. Big flying things that aren’t insects.” And it’s time for Johnny’s second ritual of the day, the mid-morning whiteboard mission, all dot-pointed to-do-list solutions and flow-chart diagrams.

Noah leans back and offers his usual criticisms. There’s not much else to do. Early on, the first evening, they signalled from a window on the top floor, flashing torches in unison; but the thing about giant moths is, well, they might be giant but they’re also moths, and if you give them a reason to plummet towards you and headbutt a window, then that’s what they do.

No direct contact with anyone outside, then, but there must be other survivors. The ziggurat layers of the Centre for Infection are no carefully-designed stronghold, after all. Noah thinks there must be a group in the RAF museum down the road; sometimes they hear a put-put-put overhead, and Johnny says he looked out of the window once to see biplanes somersaulting through the skies and shooting at the moths. (Moth-like creatures, he’d corrected himself quickly).

They could run for it, Noah thinks, maybe head for the British Library newspaper collection down the road - if they made it, he could finally teach himself how to do cryptic crosswords. Instead he pushes the filing cabinet back in place, and helps Johnny look for a new red whiteboard marker.

Posted in Northern Line. Tagged with , .


Clapham South tube station.

Picture by Dan’s photos

The Cockfosters Penis Acclimatisation Society meets weekly, in a room above the local pub.

“Honourable Members,” the President says, then pauses to make sure that nobody is sniggering. “Honourable Members, welcome. Please take your places and remove your trousers.”

There are women in the CPAS nowadays, but the Constitution was written in the 1930s, and makes no allowance for their presence; like the men, they stow their tidy piles of shoes, socks, trousers and underpants in the basket beneath their chair.

“Thank you,” the President says, watching as twenty-seven penises flop into view across the room: large and small, pointy and blunt, pallid and dark and ruddy. “I now call upon Reverend Talbot to lead us in the Declaration.”

The Reverend (large, blunt, ruddy) moves to the lectern. “Penises,” he intones, “are not funny.”

“Penises are not funny,” the group repeats in unison.

“A penis is a body part like any other.”

“A penis is a body part like any other.”

“We gather here in Cockfosters once more, and we feast upon spatchcock, knob celery and spotted dick. And as we feast, we repeat: penises are not funny.”

“Penises are not funny.”

“Thank you,” the President says. “Please, everyone, be seated,” and the group complies. “Our first order of business is the new logo. Mr Cartwright?”

Mr Cartwright (small, pallid, pointy) switches on the projector and fiddles for a few moments, trying to get his computer connected. “Sorry,” he says, “laptop problems.” There’s a muffled cough that could have been a laugh; the President looks pointedly towards the corner of the room near the door, and only relaxes his gaze when the presentation begins behind him.

The new logos aren’t, the Society agrees, sufficiently phallic. “No,” Mr Cartwright says, “I quite agree. I’ll have another word with the designer. I think she’s afraid she’ll end up in one of those news articles about amusing double-entendre logos.”

The President raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps you could assure her,” he says, “that when a logo is specifically intended to resemble a penis, it is merely a single entendre. Shall we move on to the new baking initiative?”

Mr Farleigh (small, dark, blunt) and Miss Dunbar (n/a) stand, and report an update: their most recent biscuit, the Oaty Todger, has yet to catch on, but two family-owned tea shops and a nearby grocery store have agreed to stock it on a trial basis.

“And in the last order of business before lunch,” the President says, “we have some very good news about the balloon.”

Vice-President Chancerby pulls a cord, and the plans unfurl.

“Fund-raising for the balloon,” the President says, “has now reached the fifty percent mark, which means we can put down our deposit and start the construction process. We have even, after many false starts, managed to locate a contractor who maintained due solemnity when presented with the plans.”

The penis-shaped hot air balloon has been, for many years, the ultimate goal of the CPAS. Each night when the President closes his smooth eyelids, he dreams of flying up, up, high above the streets of London, a magnificent dacron phallus above him; and there, cradled in its basket, he will take his high-powered rifle and shoot at every upturned sniggering face. The Piccadilly-line crowds who say “Cockfosters” to each other with loud laughing drones; the teenagers who stare in chortling astonishment at spotted dick, blocking the supermarket aisles. Everyone who names a pub Ye Olde Cock and laughs, and everyone who lunches there and smirks.

“The penis,” he says loudly, hands upon his own, “is a body part like any other!”

“The penis,” the Society responds as one, roaring, triumphant, “is a body part like any other!”

“Let us go,” the President says, “and make it so.”

Posted in Piccadilly Line. Tagged with , , , , .

Clapham South

Clapham South tube station.

Picture by Ewan M: Clapham South station

Function follows form. Put up a house with three bedrooms, and a medium-sized family will move in; put up a stage, and you’ll summon a theatre troupe. Buildings determine their own purpose, dictating their content with the shape of their windows and the colour of their facades.

In one universe, just a sidestep from our own, Clapham South Underground Station is therefore an old cinema: the sort of place that closed down during the 60s, shed its paint with picturesque care, and welcomed surreptitious visits from photographers and teenagers for twenty years. Eventually it underwent regeneration, and since then it’s housed a rotating selection of dress salons, jewellery shops, delicatessens, hairdressers, and, for three months in early 2006, a cupcake bar.

In another universe, a step in the opposite direction, it’s the Ministry of some Positive Abstract Noun or other, the sort of thing that shorthands EVIL OPPRESSION: the Ministry of Love, the Ministry of Hope, the Ministry of Valour, the Ministry of Diligence. In its tunnels and tiny rooms, civil servants write policy documents about action management mechanisms, then mass-email informative pdfs about keeping your inbox empty.

Another step, and it’s the headquarters of the United Kingdom Objectivist Society, with REASON inscribed above the door in majestic capitals. Evangelists hand out free copies of Atlas Shrugged to faintly irritated passers-by. Study groups underground agree, over cake, that altruism is bad. Several of the men are named Leo.

It can all get a bit confusing, especially for Andie, who isn’t a great navigator at the best of times. Her technique relies on landmarks and a vague sense of familiarity, which works increasingly poorly with each new universe she travels through. Still, she’s sitting on the bench when Kurt arrives, against all expectations.

“I brought popcorn,” she says, unzipping her backpack surreptitiously and pointing. “I hope you didn’t buy any already? Sorry, I should have phoned ahead to say.”

“No,” he says. “I didn’t.”

She squeezes the backpack between them on the bench, and looks out at the station in front of them. “The Northern Line was the only thing showing,” she says. “No idea what it’s about, I’m pretty sure I’ve never even heard of it.”

“Are you joking?” Kurt asks.

“It’s okay so far. I think that girl there,” and she points at a woman who’s reading a thick book and leaning against the wall, “is the main character, she’s been pacing around a bit and looking tormented. Not many explosions or jokes,” she adds, “but 3D tech’s got a hell of a lot better since Spy Kids: Game Over.”

“This isn’t a cinema,” Kurt says.

“I think the guy with the camera’s the baddie.”

“This isn’t,” Kurt repeats, “a cinema. This is both the wrong decade and the wrong universe for a cinema.”

Andie frowns. “Oh,” she says.

“Yes,” Kurt says. “Oh.”

“You mean this is…?”

Kurt sighs. “That’s right.”

Andie launches herself from the bench, and tackles the reading woman to the ground, wrenching the book from her hand and throwing it across the platform. “Noooooo!” she yells. “Unrestricted markets don’t promote general prosperity, they act against it! The dictum that nobody should initiate force is itself unenforceable without a reliable system of government! History demonstrates that legislation against the right to discriminate is necessary in order to reduce inequality and inequity! Dagny Taggart is a stupid name!”

Kurt sighs, stands, and collects the book from where it lies, splayed open on the platform. It seems to be an inoffensive Arthurian fantasy. “That’s also,” he calls out, “not the universe we’re in.”

“John Galt is a fictional character whose imaginary experiences prove nothing about the real world!” Andie is yelling.

“Andie!” Kurt repeats. “Wrong universe! Again!”

Andie has paused for breath, and hears him this time. “Oh,” she says, and frowns. She gets up. The woman on the platform looks at her from the ground, astonished. “Sorry,” Andie adds.

“I thought the trains would be a giveaway,” Kurt says as he hands the book back and helps the woman to her feet.

“I thought they were, like, an allegorical representation of the motor of the world? I’m really sorry!” she adds to the woman. For a moment she tries to think of something else to say, but a couple of station employees in brightly-coloured safety vests are running along the platform towards her; so she mouths another apology, grabs hold of Kurt, and slips into the next universe across. In this one, the Clapham South building is an abandoned military outpost on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a lifeless sea. Which, as it’s quite sunny, makes for a better day out anyway.

Posted in Northern Line. Tagged with , , , , .

Clapham North

Clapham Common bandstand.

Picture by Jason Tabarias: Bend

Carey looks down four hundred feet and snaps her fingers, catching a large slow bee in mid-air. Its stripes are glossy and pale orange, which is new. Greens make you dozy, reds make you happy, blues make everything really interesting (and are really hard to catch), but orange: well, who knows? If she squeezes, the bee will die, and a drop of nectar will swell at the tip of its genetically-engineered extrusion gland.

She sucks the nectar and drops the empty on the ground. As drug delivery mechanisms go, you’d struggle to come up with anything less efficient; but on the other hand, swarms of multicoloured bees sure are pretty.

Prettiness is important, here. She’s standing at the edge of a wide wicker basket, shifting her feet occasionally as it bobs in the air. Above, the huge wings of a Beppelin slowly beat. Underneath, on the distant ground, the crowd is shifting, moving a little faster, lit by the thick wax candles that stud the ground like tree-trunks. They’re bright but spectrally limited, and the dark world glows gold and silver and white and grey.

Carey yawns, languid. This is Southtown, and you go to Southtown to impress, not to be impressed. You go because you’re a rich young daredevil from north of the river, and you like the thrill. You go because you want to prove they’ll let you in. You go because it’s an autonomous ethical region, which is to say: what happens in Southtown stays in Southtown.

Or, in Carey’s case, you go for an entirely different set of reasons, and you hope that nobody figures any of them out before you get away.

From the VIP basket she can see north to brightly-lit buildings across the river. More anchored Beppelins bob around her, each with its own pair of matching knee-baskets. On the ground, people are dancing, just a little more raucous than they were a few hours ago. In the dark streets to the west, she can see home.

“I should get going,” she says to her host, and smooths her skirt. It’s wide and knee-length and it puffs out, buoyed by half a dozen layered petticoats; rough silk, fashionably frayed around the edges. The outfit won’t stand up to close scrutiny (most of the petticoats are polyester, the bones of her black-and-grey corset are uncomfortable plastic), but then, under close scrutiny the sniffer bees will mark her as an impostor anyway. “Thanks for having me, though,” she adds. He’s unconscious so he probably can’t hear, but it seems only polite.

On the ground, there’s none of the spacious luxury of the Beppelin and its massed pillows; there are people, pressing close, and they jump and yell and twist around and drink. Carey slips through, meeting a few eyes, exchanging a few nods. It would be an unusually bad time to get caught, but she feels safe and warm and pleased. Perhaps that’s what orange-stripes are for.

On the way in, she’d come through the gates with half a dozen nervous teenagers. It must have been their first visit; they’d been grateful for her apparent expertise, and she’d passed security unquestioned, surrounded by their wide blinking eyes. Leaving is going to be a little harder. She picks one of the small back exits, where she can get past the guards without arousing too much suspicion or hurting anyone too badly.

A dozen steps from the wall, heading straight into darkness, smiling in response to the curious glance of an arriving trio. Once she’s around the corner, she stops behind an abandoned public hive to strip off the silk skirt and the corset: her almost-convincing rich-person clothes are a liability out here. The polyester petticoats and the baggy undershirt will do.

She can hear Southtown behind her, louder and higher-pitched—maybe the sound of discovery, or maybe just the first signs of dawn sending the crowd into a new frenzy. Another street, past factories and warehouses. Tall jagged fences. A glossy high-security beecycle rack for the north-siders, blinking malfunction. A few narrow houses are still standing, but nobody will look out at her: the overcrowded inhabitants keep to themselves, heavy curtains never drawn open, wax stopping their ears. With slumland on one side and Southtown on the other, nobody wants to be friendly with the neighbours.

Another street’s length and she can see the bounds of home. Safe, then. Even security drones turn aside, the UV guidelines on the footpath leading them away. She stops to breathe and close her eyes for a moment, listening to the silence: here, and only here, the constant buzz of the city is quiet. No busy apiaries line the footpaths or stand in the squares. The few green spaces are filled with flowerless weeds; the tragedy of the commons does swiftly for any nectar sources. The people in these streets use coal and wires and oil, and it fills the air, leaves a greasy patina on every surface, infuses the fog with smoke and renders it unnavigable. Home.

It wasn’t always like this, Mattari once told her. A few hundred years ago, the streets were wide; the houses were elegant. She knows where to look to see the shells of the old buildings, hidden behind ramshackle wood-and-iron extensions that encroach on what used to be public space. Once upon a time, Lavender Hill really did glow purple with flowers in the late afternoon light; the commons really were held in common; private gardens stretched across gentle slopes. She can’t really imagine it.

She speeds up as she heads for Mattari & Sons, slips in through the side-door. Out front, Mattari is selling blackmarket “honey” through a sea of euphemisms. The back room is filled with sugarwater and paint and clear-bottled chemicals, but it’s not really swindling; at Mattari’s prices, nobody thinks they’re getting the genuine article.

Carey heads into the closet—the back room’s back room, home to the more dubious practices that hide behind a veneer of petty swindling and fake honey. There’s a half-empty bottle of real mead on a low shelf; she fills a cracked beaker. For tonight’s haul, she thinks, they’re going to need to build a back room for the back room’s back room.

She hears the outer door open and shut as the customer leaves; and the rattle as Mattari draws down the blinds. She flips through the top layers of petticoats to find a pocket, then pulls out the jar. “Catch,” she says as he comes through the door; and he does.

“Are they real?” he asks, shaking the jar gently.

“Dunno,” she says, and sits on the edge of the table. “They look like the pictures.”

The microscope’s out already; he picks up a slide and unscrews the jar carefully, tweezering out a single creature.

“Yeah,” he says after a few minutes. “They’re varroa mites all right.” His voice is steady.

“Remind me again,” Carey says, and laughs and leans back, “how we’re only going to use this power for good?”

Posted in Northern Line. Tagged with , , .

Clapham Common

Clapham Common bandstand.

Picture by rev0lvin: Clapham Bandstand & The Cafe

Adem walks across Clapham Common every morning, and in the evening too when there’s good gusty weather.

The thing about walking across Clapham Common is this: once you’ve done it a few times, there aren’t many surprises left. There’s some grass; there’s some jutting-up trees around the edges; there’s some water in the middle; and there’s a bandstand. And that, plus a statue or two and the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of pushchairs and perambulators, is pretty much that.

When Adem first moved to Clapham, the common was new and exciting; then, after a few months, it was old and dull. Now, eight years in, it’s fascinating again, so deeply familiar that any minute variation stands out in a moment. The stump that lies directly between his flat and the tube station, the asterisks where strangely-angled paths meet: these would barely register in a more crowded park, but Clapham Common gives them the space they need to become landmarks.

The only part of Clapham Common that Adem doesn’t like is the bandstand.

Perhaps it’s partly that he hasn’t had so long to get to know it: it was refurbished in 2006, so it doesn’t have the same weight of familiarising years. But mostly, he thinks, it’s the way it draws visitors straight towards its bright colours and curved roof and central position, past every tiny detail that’s grown dear to him.

“Isn’t this the one they spent four million pounds refurbishing, or something?” Tevvi says.

“It was a million.”

She looks at it. “It’s not very good, is it?”

“It’s a bandstand, what were you expecting?”

“For a million pounds? Lasers,” she says. “Or at least, I dunno, some plants.”

“There’s plenty of plants,” Adem says, “over this way.”

Tevvi ignores him, and mounts the steps into the bandstand; she knocks a loose fist against one of its poles.

He wants to explain that the bandstand isn’t the point. He wants to talk about the way Cock Pond’s name sinewaves from funny to not-funny and back every few months. The way mist hangs close to the ground on winter mornings. The way there’s an invisible line right down the middle of the common, dividing it in two, half Wandsworth and half Lambeth. Sometimes he walks along the line, moving from borough to borough with each step; sometimes he runs towards it and leaps over, chest out, shifting from home to not-home in mid-air.

“There’s a great old log and a couple of stumps over to the east,” Adem says. “And some really weird concrete. And a tree,” he adds in a last-ditch effort, “dedicated to Jeremy Brett.”

“Is it shaped like Sherlock Holmes?”

“Yes,” Adem says, which is a lie.

Posted in Northern Line. Tagged with , .


A loaf of home-baked bread.

Picture by Will Merydith: Fresh Baked Bread

Toby and Lillian return to find the kitchen streamered with wires. They criss-cross and twist and loop, red and green and white and blue. They run between every appliance, from the microwave to the refrigerator; their far ends disappear into light sockets or round lumps of dough.

Nanette is standing in the middle of the tangle, apron tied loosely over her lab coat. The thickest of the cords runs from her laptop to the stove; the oven door is jammed open by what looks like a periscope. A soldering iron, a spatula and a copper-bottomed bowl sit on the countertop.

“Baked beans for dinner again?” Toby says.

“Hey, hold this,” Nanette says, and hands him an aerial. “It’ll only take a moment.” She adjusts a dial on the oven; there’s a pause, then a loud pop, then a small puff of flour from the toaster.

She frowns. “Okay, that’s getting better,” she says, and rotates the copper bowl ninety degrees.

(The Chorleywood Bread Process can transform a pile of weak flour into a sliced packaged loaf in two hundred and ninety minutes. It’s pretty fast. And, as a consequence, pretty cheap; and, as a further consequence, the process behind more than eighty percent of English loaves.

Nanette, brought up in an old-fashioned bakery in a small Suffolk town, discovered Chorleywood bread when she went to university.

“It’s… the crust!” she said, once she’d recovered enough to talk. “The crumb! People eat this? This isn’t bread, it’s a facecloth.”

Toby took a bite. “Tastes fine to me.”)

She refills the kettle and puts it carefully back in place.

“Can I go now?” Toby says.

“Not yet,” she says. “Just a sec.” She drops a new handful of flour into the toaster, splashes olive oil onto the stovetop.

(”I won’t,” Nanette said on that Thursday afternoon, “even talk about this… jar-of-shit pseudojam,” and she screwed on the lid with disgusted fingers.

“You sound like my grandma,” Toby said.

“Not that it matters how it tastes, when you’re just going to put it on this.” She took a slice between two fingers and wobbled it in the air. “You know what this is like? It’s like those gooey blob things you throw at walls, and they stick,” and she overarmed it towards the window; but it flopped off onto the ground and picked up a thin coating of hair and dust.

“Don’t do that,” Toby said, dusting it off and putting it back in the bag. “That’s my dinner.”)

This time there’s no puff of flour, but a green wire sparks, and the microwave door swings open.

“Okay guys,” Lillian says, “I’m going to the library. Have fun.”

“Hey,” Toby says, but it’s too late; Nanette pulls him a little further into the kitchen and changes the angle of the aerial.

“Maybe stand on the chair, actually?” she says.

(When she visited her parents over the break, they nodded sadly.

“Maybe we should have told you about it sooner,” her mother said, “but there’s some things you don’t want a little girl to know. But it was selfish of us; you shouldn’t have had to find out this way.”

“No, it’s all right,” Nanette said. “You were just trying to do the right thing.”

And she, too, tried to do the right thing. Petitions, home-baking, buying decent loaves and carrying them back to uni to feed to the ignorant. It was hard work. “I absolutely share,” said the head of baked goods at the local supermarket, “your feelings about top-quality bread, but you must understand that people want choice. Artisan loaves are never going to take over from good old-fashioned slice-n-bag. We all make our individual decisions about how to spend our limited incomes, and these decisions, Miss LaVarier, add up.”)

“What are you doing, anyway?” Toby says. “And are you going to clean up?”

“Okay,” Nanette says. “The Chorleywood Bread Process is evil, right? But it’s fast, and real bread takes too long.”

Toby sighs; Nanette has gone over this repeatedly, in varying stages of drunkenness.

“So what we need,” and she takes yet another handful of flour, “is a quicker way to make real bread. But that’s hard, right? Because the bread has to sit and rise and rest, you have to knead it, it all adds up.”

“I don’t know why it bothers you,” Toby says. “Nobody’s forcing you to eat anything.”

Nanette steps back and looks at the setup, frowns again, then switches two wires. “There’s an interesting parallel here,” she says, “with cryptography. Most of the codes that people use these days? You can break ‘em, you just need a really long time. Longer than a good loaf of bread. Longer than the life of the universe, usually.”

“Okay,” Toby says. “Sure.”

“But,” Nanette says, “that doesn’t mean everyone’s given up. People are working on the usual sort of cryptographic problem-solving—tricks to speed it all up, shortcuts. A bit like the Chorleywood Bread Process, right? And then, other people are working on a whole new system, and that’s what’s really going make it quicker. Quantum computing.”

Toby is a humanities student. “You know that doesn’t mean anything to me,” he says.

“Well, now’s probably not the time for a proper explanation—”

“I wasn’t asking for—”

“—but basically it’s a special kind of computer. It’s still in development, but the big important thing about a quantum computer is that it doesn’t have to do stuff in order, solve one problem then the next then the next. It can do everything at the same time.”

Toby’s arm is getting tired.

“And if we can use quantum mechanics to break a code,” Nanette continues, “why can’t we use it to bake a loaf? Don’t look in the microwave this time, you’ll collapse the waveforms.”

She twists another dial, fills the copper-bottomed bowl with water, sprinkles flour on top, dunks a cord in the mixture, and turns on the microwave. It whirrs.

“Doesn’t the physics department have laboratories for this?” Toby asks.

“No toasters. Three, two, one,” and the microwave dings. Nanette whips on the oven gloves and turns the copper bowl upside-down: startlingly, a loaf of bread drops out. She snatches up a plant-mister and covers it in spray. It looks pretty delicious.

“Wait, wasn’t that flour a moment ago?”

“Shush,” Nanette says, “don’t make any sudden noises.” She stands away from the loaf, watching. Steam rises. It trembles slightly.

The kitchen is silent.

“Has it worked?” Toby asks; and the loaf explodes, scattering into tiny tiny crumbs that hang in the air like smoke.

Nanette swears. “Basic decoherence problem,” she says. “The cryptographers have it too. Proof of concept, though, eh?” and she grins.

Toby blinks.

“That’s a pun,” she says. “Because you have to proof the bread? And proof of concept, it’s like, no, never mind. Just put on an apron. And maybe get the stepladder.”

Posted in Metropolitan Line. Tagged with , , , , , .